Card-counting startup founders look to place a bet on Google Glass

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Ben Crawford and Colin Jones ran a profitable card-counting team in Seattle before going off and making money off their own business ventures.

Colin Jones and Ben Crawford have a tremendous story to tell, and one that you may have already read about or watched. In a nutshell, the Seattle natives went from waiting tables to becoming expert card counters at the Blackjack table to organizing a Christian card-counting team that was backed by investors, shared profit and won millions.

Now they’re immersed in the world of technology, and looking forward to capitalizing on emerging platforms including Google Glass.

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The BlackjackApprenticeship App, created by Jones and Crawford, helps refine your Blackjack skills.

The Church Team disbanded after six years in 2011, but Jones and Crawford didn’t stop making money. To pay it forward to the next generation of card-counters, they started their own training business that features workshops, videos, an accompanying top-rated iOS app and a Google Glass app in the works that helps you beat the casino at its own game.

Through their Blackjack careers, they’ve learned an incredible amount about how to be a successful entrepreneur. We caught up with Jones this week and he told us all about the the Church Team journey and how he’s applied that experience to the various Internet businesses he helps run now.

GeekWire: First off, let’s talk about Google Glass. How do you plan on incorporating Glass with BlackjackApprenticeship?

Jones: Google hasn’t come out with the Glass development kit yet, so there’s very limited functionality we can plan. But we can already see way our training can be incorporated, whether it’s through training drills using Glass or our Casino Directory Software. The software makes it so you could be walking down the Vegas Strip in real time and be able to address what places are worth playing at and get updates about playing conditions.

GeekWire: Aren’t casinos banning Google Glass already?

Jones: As far as casinos banning it, they freak out with every new form of technology because they always want to have the upper hand. They have been terrified since 1962 when card counting was first discovered. But they have to adapt, too. They freak out about iPhone when everyone has a smartphone. They can ban smartphones from players sitting at table, but they can’t ban them from casinos.

The Church Team had to memorize sheets like this.

The Church Team had to memorize sheets like this.

Same goes for Glass. They can ban it, but you wonder when Glass becomes attachments to prescriptions — are they going to ban people from prescription glasses that are incorporated for smart eyewear? We are just trying to think forward as this technology becomes more mainstream, just like iPhone. What are ways we can legally use technology to our advantage, just like casino uses technology to their advantage with cameras and playing chips that track player wages.

GeekWire: It seems like you guys and your Church Team had some type of vendetta against casinos.

Jones: That was the attitude we had. Card counters are this really small subset — we’re not pro gamblers but we still go to casinos not to gamble, but to use our brains to what we call “invest,” and to play with the advantage. We see casinos for why they really are: Smoke and mirrors and flashing lights. They are just selling a lie, which is “Come get lucky and make money.” They’re selling a lie. If you’re that rare one in 100,000 that has taken the time to train and play the game well, then they treat you like a criminal and ask you to leave — and not very kindly.

When you hear people talking about gambling with their welfare checks or rent money at casinos, it makes you sick. You never once in a casino hear a dealer or tip boss or anyone say, “Maybe you shouldn’t play today,” or “You know what, you’re probably going to lose.” They say, “good luck, I hope it goes well,” when everyone knows it won’t go well.

When you see that side of it, you can’t help but want to have a vendetta against them. That’s not how we got into it, but when they use lies, we want to bring the other side to it. And casinos make card counters out to be the bad guys and criminals, when we’re doing exactly why they tell you to do. They tell you to come there and win big, so we go and win big and they say, “how dare you do that?” That lie, I think, still needs to be exposed and I’m happy to expose it. 

GeekWire: Your team was made up of mostly Christians. Did people question you or any of the members for getting into card counting?

Jones: We take that stuff really seriously and continue to have long discussions with people about it. I continue to ask myself if this is something I should be involved in. But for myself and for the people that played on the team, we saw no conflict between our faith and beating a game that can offer up to be beaten. That’s the way we have seen it. And it’s not the sole thing we pursue because we want to see our hands produce something else. Taking money at casinos is of value, but if that was our entire lives, it wouldn’t be as satisfying. It’s not my sole pursuit.

The Church Team would sometimes dress up in disguises so as not to be recognized by casino employees.

The Church Team would sometimes dress up in disguises so as not to be recognized by casino employees.

GeekWire: How does your experience leading and managing The Church Team help you today with your businesses?

Jones: I tell people that counting cards is kind of like farming. You go to the casino and you plough the field. You know if you keep doing it, some day your crops will grow. It might happen in one day, but you’ll also have bad days.

Now I do the same thing, but for internet business. For websites, we plough fields, create value and wait and see if things grow. Take our Blackjack App we started five years ago. We put some stuff together and the thing was just pathetic a couple years ago. I knew there was a way to make it work if I put my mind to it. I just taught myself lean startup principles, like how do we find out what users want, how do I get more traffic, how do we increase conversion, what are resources we can add that will increase retention rate — things like that. I applied those and it was like, if I can do that for card counting websites, I can do it for other websites.

Ben and I, we didn’t go to business school didn’t get an MBA. But we learned it. The things we apply to our businesses are what we learned running a Blackjack team. We run them like we run our Blackjack team. We could have spent $100,000 on an MBA, but instead we learned figured it out doing Blackjack.

Jones helps run a business that helps other other companies grow their online presence.

Jones helps run a business that helps other other companies grow their online presence.

And I didn’t read business books, but now I do. Every book I read, I’m like, “Oh, that’s what we did with Blackjack team.” We would pivot and find out things we were good at and keep doing them and scaling them. We also created a culture. There’s no doubt that we weren’t the smartest Blackjack team, but we created a team mentality. We encouraged players to invest in it. People cared about it more than just the money, which is why Starbucks wants you to buy stock options. If you work there, you care about the creating that culture and that’s why we lasted as long as we did. People cared about each other.

We also held monthly team meetings, which got all of the players together to talk about the state of the business. And when someone new would join the team, we’d have to do trip with veterans to help them learn the ropes. We had to meet with lawyers and accountants and really figure out how we structured our card counting team. All that stuff was incredibly valuable. It was exciting to figure it all out as we were going and now both of us are able to do it in a more traditional, but more scalable sense.  

GeekWire: To wrap it up, can you give us your top three startup tips from your experience with The Church Team?

Jones: 1A: You need a “why” for what you do, and money is never a good enough “why.” If money is what holds your team/business together, it won’t satisfy. You have to have deeper “core values” or goals. For our Blackjack team, it was camaraderie/community, taking money from casinos, and providing freedom from the 9-5 grind.

The Church Team would have dinners together each time they made $100,000 collectively — a "bankroll."

The Church Team would have dinners together each time they made $100,000 collectively — a “bankroll.”

1B: “Don’t just build a business around an exit strategy.” I don’t think starting something based around the idea of selling it for a gazillion dollars is a good enough reason to start something. A lot of people create a startup based around their exit strategy, then if it doesn’t take off, they’ve spent several years (and tons of money) on something that didn’t matter.

But the people who start a business because they are passionate about what they are creating, or learning, will consider it time well spent regardless of what happens financially. The Blackjack team was something we were passionate about because of the people on the team as well as the lessons we were learning from running the business. Once I lost that passion, it was time to move on.

2. Celebrate regularly. Our Blackjack team would have a “bankroll dinner” every time we reached our financial goals. We really tried to go over the top with these dinners. This brought more excitement and sense of accomplishment than money could ever provide.

3. Partner with, and hire, people you like and trust. This was incredibly important on the Blackjack team because we were handing people $100K with no oversight. They could have pocketed all the money and claimed they “lost it” at the casino and we would have never known. But at this point, I can’t imagine working with people I don’t care about and enjoy more than the work they produce. I want to work with people I would spend time with outside of work, invest in their lives, and have them invest in mine.

Previously on GeekWire: GeekWire Radio: Poker legend Phil Gordon is back in the technology game